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Monday, April 13, 2015

Steel (1997)

In 1992 one of the biggest events in comic-dom happened, Superman died. He of course didn’t stay dead, but his brief absence was filled by a group of “Supermen”, one being John Henry Irons who donned power armor and high-tech weaponry and called himself Steel. In 1997 Warner Brothers made a live action movie based on this character. Unfortunately, the names were not changed to protect the innocent but pretty much every other element of Steel was.


This movie adaptation was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson who is mostly known for such television shows as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk. Because of these past endeavors he was reluctant to do another superhero project. Producer Joel Simon talked him into it by describing the character as a “Knight in shining armor” in a contemporary world, thus the cape was ditched as well as almost every single aspect from the comic.

Steel hero 
Comic Book Version

Some comic book fans get up in arms if changes are made to their beloved characters when they make the translation to big screen, but most of us know that some things just don’t translate well from one medium to another. If you add a limited budget into the mix you’ll be lucky if it even vaguely resembles the source material.

Movie Version

We are truly spoiled these days as we have been getting a plethora of excellent comic book movies, and much of the reason for this is that those involved are actually fans themselves and not just taking a paycheck. In the case of Steel we have a respected television director trying to create a blue-collar Batman right down to him having just a steel cowl instead a fully armored head. This does not lend itself to making a good adaptation. Then, to make matters worse, they cast Shaquille O’Neal to play the title role, and I must say as an actor Shaquille O’Neal is one hell of a basketball player.


In this movie we are introduced to John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neal) who is an army weapons designer. Along with partner, Susan “Sparky” Sparks (Annabeth Gish) they have designed some incredibly powerful high-tech toys. Also on the team is Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson) who, in trying to impress a visiting Senator, moves the power settings of the sonic gun they are testing way past safety limits. This results in a sonic backlash that crumbles the building they are in, killing the Senator and leaving Sparks in a wheelchair. Because this weapon has made Sparks a cripple, John Henry Irons tells Colonel Davis (Charles Napier) that he is leaving the military.

No one told me weapons could hurt people.

For his screw-up Burke was dismissed from the military, which means he must have had one hell of a lawyer as I’m sure that actions resulting in the death of a Senator would have had a tad more severe repercussions than “you’re fired”. Burke also managed to leave with a data disk containing top secret schematics from the weapons program which he then brings to an old friend that runs an illegal arms dealing organization from behind an arcade game company front.

Excuse me, but could I see someone about hunting and killing Donkey Kong?

Burke provides new modified versions of the weapons John Henry designed to a local gang as a sort of “marketing stunt” to attract buyers. When John Henry witnesses his weapons being used for crime he decides to “fight fire with fire” and, with the aid of Sparks and junkyard proprietor Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree), he builds an armored power suit. He finally gets the thing built and becomes “Steel” at the 45 minute mark which is not good when the movie only has a 96 minute running time. On his first outing he stops a mugger from robbing some rich people, and to say his lumbering entrance into crime fighting is embarrassing to behold would be an understatement.

Kind of Steels your breath away, doesn’t it?

He then responds to a call regarding a street gang fight which he thwarts with the amazing tactic of standing still while they unload full automatic weapons fire on him. He somehow manages to avoid catching a stray round in the face so I’m guessing he and Robocop must carry the same lucky rabbit’s foot. Eventually John Henry activates the electromagnet in his suit that disarms all the perps which then leads to one of the movies biggest failings, and that is “Steel vs The Police.” It’s one thing to hold off giving us our superhero until well past the halfway mark, but from here on in he spends most of the film’s remaining time fighting and running away from the authorities. Who thought that was a good idea?

Also Shaq looks ridiculous riding his “Steelcycle”

Kenneth Johnson jettisoned all of the villains from Steel’s rogue gallery in favor of street gangs with superguns and Jud “fucking” Nelson and yet we spend more time watching Steel running across rooftops and getting into high-speed chases to evade the police. Sparks uses her computer to switch traffic lights in Steel’s favor causing traffic accidents and Steel himself uses caltrops to blow out pursuing police cruiser’s tires. Our heroes ladies and gentleman! In the comic Steel could fly, which alleviates the problem of lumbering away from crime scenes before the police arrive. Then again, Steel wasn’t a Batman type vigilante in the first place, where in this version he has a junkyard Batcave, a black Alfred and Oracle.

Jupiter Jones and The Three Investigators want their hideout back.

Irons is eventually arrested, tossing around several SWAT members before surrendering, but when Sparks and Uncle Joe learn that Burke is holding a secret auction for his guns they break him out. Here we approach the moment we have all dreaded, Shaquille O’Neal in rubber armor vs Judd Nelson in a 90s Nauru jacket.

Who’s your money on?

It’s not the fact that this movie is just a terrible adaptation of a great character that bothers me but that it does everything wrong with it; they hire a non-actor for the lead, jettisons all that is interesting about the character, it has a poor man’s Robocop suit and then includes a villainous plot that even Cobra Commander would have thought was lame.

Things Too Stupid Not to Mention
• They have a running gag poking fun at Shaq’s poor free throwing ability that “pays off” when he has to throw a grenade through a small hole. A grenade that apparently has a bloody 25 second fuse!
• Uncle Joe gives Steel his hammer and tells him, “I especially like the Shaft.” Richard Roundtree of course played Shaft. *sigh*
• Steel has Batman’s grappling gun.
• Superman doesn’t exist in this world but John Henry Irons has a Man of Steel tattoo.
• When John Henry asks Sparks how the buyers for the weapons will make contact he is told, “In this day in age there is only one way…the Internet!”

“Can I go home now?”

This is the kind of movie that only exists so that the Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie can feel better about itself. Annabeth Gish is the only actor that escapes with her dignity intact as her portrayal of a woman adjusting to life in a wheelchair is quite solid, while everyone else is either phoning it in or just plain terrible.

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